It’s back to school time, which means we’re all pumping the children in our life for information about “what they want to do when they grow up.” High schoolers get the worst of this treatment. By junior year, the pressure is on them to know what college they want to attend. To know that, they need to know what they plan to major in. And to know that, they need to know the shape of their entire career path.
It’s a great deal of pressure to place on someone whose frontal lobe isn’t even fully formed yet.
It’s not even enough that our young people have career plans. Their career plans must also be part of a bigger scheme to “live with purpose,” “make a difference,” or “follow God’s call.”
We mean well, we really do. But somewhere we’ve confused the whole idea of having a job with having a purpose. These are not the same, nor should they be.
I’ve spent a great deal of energy pondering my purpose in life. On any given day, I am likely to be having doubts about what I do and whether it makes a difference. And I spend enough time talking to others to know that I’m not alone in this. We are a restless generation, always feeling like there must be something more.
The spiritually minded among us feel this pressure as through the lens of faith. We are ever-searching for God’s vision in our lives. “Should I take this job? Or does God want me to take that one? And how are we supposed to know?”
It is the knowing that seems to be hardest. We all have visions of disappointing a demanding trail-guide. “I clearly marked the path for you but you ventured off on your own. Your punishment is self-inflicted. You will never find your calling; no matter what you do, you will find yourself yearning for the road not taken.”
This is not God’s way. Story after story attests to this. The God of the Bible is constantly calling God’s people back to the path—even when they’ve strayed horribly, far more horribly than taking the wrong job at the wrong time. Or turning down a service opportunity. Or saying “no” to a church ministry team.
In fact, I’m beginning to think that God is less concerned about any of this than we might think. Not because God doesn’t care about how we do good in the world, but because God cares too much to let it be determined by something as arbitrary as a career choice.
Many years ago, Fredrick Buechner’s now-famous formula for determining the purpose of life crossed my path. “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
This was a balm to my soul. All I have to do is find my passion, plug in the world’s need, and voila. And for a while, it was that easy. Then I realized that the framework breaks down at a certain point. Our passions are going to intersect with the world’s needs in far too many places. We’ll never be able to address them all.
The solution is perhaps surprising. In a world that is ever asking us to narrow down our expertise, I think the answer is to remember that when it comes to purpose, God is a generalist. What do I mean by this? Simply that God cares less about any particular Big Deal Choice than we might think.
God doesn’t deal in grand life plans but in the day-to-day choices of our lives. The question isn’t “how will I live out God’s call tomorrow?” but “how will I live out God’s call today?” Will we treat others in a spirit of grace and love in this moment? Or will we become too preoccupied by grand designs to live as God’s people here and now?
I grow more convinced that our life’s purpose isn’t laid out on a trail from point A to point B, where every big decision brings with it the possibility of venturing off-track. Instead, it is more likely a national park of interweaving paths, all of them leading to great beauty and discovery. Whether we achieve our purpose has less to do with what trail we take and more to do with how we walk it.